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About Lichtung

Sabine Bürger:  When I was busy editing the visuals for Lichtung, I remembered Rutger’s Take a Closer Listen book. In the introduction he was recalling an experience he once had in a public park. His iPod had run out of batteries, so he was listening to the sounds around him, with his head-phones still on, and he said that having the ear-phones on seemed to intensify his listening experience. Looking at the digitally processed representation of nature on my computer, this was something that I could really relate to. Furthermore I also found it a very appropriate, i.e. contemporary approach to experiencing nature. 

I’d be curious to know how you use elements of nature in your work, Steve, particularly for Lichtung.

Steve Roden:  I think Rutger’s comment about technology as a vehicle towards listening to nature is interesting. When I was in Norway a few years ago with a group of sound artists, I realized that I was the only one amongst the artists who made recordings without headphones. I have always felt that if I use headphones, my experience was more mediated and I was more focused on my mic than my ears or the entire soundscape of the place. I have always wanted the listening at home to be a discovery process, and to allow the recording to have its own freedom to offer me something entirely different than what I remembered with my ears. It is as if my experience in nature is one recording, and my partner — the recorder — records an entirely different sound world, as if the recorder hears things somehow differently than what I am hearing. Now, I make a lot of recordings with my phone. It’s a bit like carrying a Polaroid camera. I don’t need to do any set up, and the recordings have their own kind of quality (and just like a Polaroid’s relationship to a Leica, these recordings are wholly different than using a good mic and a good recorder), so they have a quality of their own that feels fragile and disposable. Most of the recordings I used for this project were done in Marfa Texas while walking in the natural landscape. I’m not so sure this is an attempt at a contemporary approach, as much as making sure that I’m always in the moment (usually set-up time kills the spontaneity). Contemporary technology allows me to capture sound in a way that is even more convenient than using a Walkman or a digital voice recorder — not to mention the ease of not carrying a backpack full of recording gear.
I suppose the instantaneous experience and the low quality ‘bit mapped’ results are indicative of how things are processed right now; but while my tools are somewhat disposable and ‘quick’, they come out of very slow and focused experiences — and in truth, these tools are somewhat failures at capturing sound as it is in life, but I am also interested in that disconnect, and perhaps how technology is wholly unsuited towards capturing the natural world.

So I wonder for Sabine, how working with video, and capturing nature’s visible side with digital gear, participates in her own experience.


Sabine:  I think the nice thing about collaborating is that it invites you to explore new terrain that you might not have entered on your own. I can really relate to what you said about wanting the listening at home to be a discovery process. For me, this kind of discovery is an aspect which needs to be present throughout the entire working process for an artwork to be successful.

When I go out into the world to do some filming I usually do this without a preconceived idea, or no idea at all, in mind. I merely point and let the camera do its job, and it’s only later that I take control when I sit in front of the computer, doing the editing. It is comparable to what you said about utilizing ‘quick’ and disposable tools whilst the process is tied to something very slow and focused, I would see the actual shooting to be a rather banal action in that nowadays the camera has taken over many of the decisions that traditionally the filmmaker or photographer had to take; yet working intuitively still requires a particular mindset, something between being highly focused and kind of ‘empty’ at the same time. One interesting thing I learned while working on this project is that looking at the movements of water and reflections in water with your naked eyes is a totally different experience to looking at the very same thing on a video, which is yet again very different to seeing a very similar motif captured by a still camera. In deciding to print these photographic stills of water on matte paper, they have lost much of their feeling of surface sheen and transparency. In some cases the images of water have been transformed to the extent that they resemble drawings. Even so, my visuals for Lichtung are not primarily about nature but sound — about making sound visible. The images really don’t work independently, it is as if they only gain their meaning or are activated by sound.

But now I think it is about high time that Rutger had the chance to get a word in, as our project really started with him and his Leaves track…


Rutger Zuydervelt:  Very interesting, Sabine. Your way of working seems to resemble mine closely. It’s like an intuitive interaction with the source material, and that was exactly how working on Lichtung felt. Our first visit to the gallery (and its surroundings) was therefore really important. It formed the basis and inspiration of everything we did after that. I still have very fond memories of those days. It was such a heartwarming experience that working on the project felt like paying homage to the gallery. Like giving something in return.

When I got home and started working with the raw material I had recorded (ice breaking, leaves rustling, wind blowing, etc.), it was all a matter of letting the material speak for itself. It’s all a matter of listening and reacting. One minute dictates the next.

The reason that all the audio and video in the installation fits together so well, doesn’t lie in the fact that there was a particular pre-determined plan before we started. It has more to do with the fact that we’re in the same mindset, and our working methods are alike. I think all of us work pretty much intuitively, and making juxtapositions of our results really became something that’s the sum of all parts. As I write this, I obviously haven’t seen the end result in the gallery yet, but I can hardly wait… 

A big inspiration for me for this project was your work, Steve. It could be my own interpretation of your music, but for me, it’s the perfect example of how to make music ‘for a room’. Sound that becomes one with the room. Not screaming for attention, but not muzak either. It’s there, like air, filling the room with an atmosphere. More like an extra layer to the environment, corresponding with the other sounds. When making the music for Lichtung, which is obviously made for a room, this was a huge inspiration. And this was even before you joined the project Steve, so you can imagine how happy I was that you were willing to be part of the project. Anyway, I’m curious about your reaction to my interpretation of your music. How do you feel about the relationship between your music and the space it’s played in? 


Steve: Well, it is an interesting question because in this case I don’t ‘know’ the space — but of course, I know the work of the people who will also determine its soundscape and imagescape. What you say about being between needing attention and no attention at all (drama vs. muzak) is important. As you know, and i would include myself in this as well, many artists who work with sound or abstracted light speak mainly about these mediums as atmosphere or mood; and usually the conversation goes towards the ability of sound and/or light to shift one’s perception of a space and its atmosphere or ‘feel’.

Over the last few years, I’ve realized that as much as my sound does create an atmosphere in a space, my interests are far removed from what music in a Hollywood film does. My work does not attempt to change a space entirely — to envelop it with an intended feel. I’m more interested in a non-directed approach — say, the difference between La Monte Young’s Dream House and having a single cricket lost in your house that you cannot find. I’m interested in allowing the sound to have slightly rough edges — a tactile quality that feels human — so it can be a presence in the space, and not an entire atmosphere. I don’t want the sound to color everything, as much as I’d like the sound to converse with the other things in the room — be they sound things or otherwise.
I’m interested in subtlety, in nudging someone slightly, rather than directing them or as you say, screaming at them for attention. It’s more like laying down a few small stepping stones which someone has to discover before they can truly wander. I have no interest in creating an audio experience akin to a talking GPS system in a car.

Sound can be so seductive and can shift a visual situation so quickly and forcibly, that manipulating an audience is fairly easy to do (just watch a sentimental television commercial); but I would like my own sound pieces to be more like those small pools of water carved into a stone in a Japanese garden. These pools exist for a specific purpose but they are also a single piece of a larger experience. They exist in a situation that allows each element to have a voice. It becomes more of a constellation-like approach, where meaning is gathered through the relationship of many things. This approach allows the viewer to have their own voice, and to participate in the conversation... as if we are dropping dots on the ground and allowing the viewer/listener to connect them in their own way. What becomes interesting in this piece is that there will be a presence and residue of all three of us (or four if you count the space as well), and what is exciting is that meaning and experience will come from these fragments... so Sabine’s images are a piece of the whole, Rutger’s sound is a piece of a whole, and my own sound is a piece of a whole. These pieces fit together aesthetically, but not logically, and so they play off of each other — intersecting in the present, but also in memory as they are all appearing in real time. Things appear to eyes and ears and then disappear, so one has to use memory along with experience, allowing one to connect my sound with Rutger’s even though they don’t happen at the same time.

I guess what I’m thinking about is that there is not really a hierarchy between the space and the sound (or video). Yes, we darken the space, but it is more than a frame — it is a container that we are all conversing with — through the things we make and how we place them. The idea of leaves in the space speaks not just about a visual situation, but suddenly viewers/listeners are ‘improvising’ with us with every step they take. Everything we have set in place — my sound, Rutger’s sound, and Sabine’s images, reeks of intimacy, and I think for me, the idea of intimacy is maybe the truest answer to your question in terms of thinking about the sound in a room. For me, I want it to be like running your hand along a railing that has been touched for years by many other people who are always doing this ‘action’ absent-mindedly, and then suddenly someone enters that space and runs their hand along the railing but actually ‘feels’ its surface along the underside of their hand. It’s a very intimate tactile and human experience. I think that is why I responded so strongly to Rutger’s piece that uses the sound of the floor, because it captures that kind of intimacy, and I think many of Sabine’s images do the same.

So it seems a good place to ask Sabine how you feel about images and sound, not in relation so much to a room, but to your own work, and how you have gravitated towards a certain kind of sound artist to work with, and also perhaps in relation to what I’ve rambled on about, how the images speak differently or consistently in relation to sound...


Sabine: First of all, allow me a quick detour to what Rutger said about the Vayhinger’s place and our first meeting there. My relationship to Vayhingers and lake Mindelsee dates back almost 20 years to when I had my first swim in the lake, and Helena and Werner have since become dear friends. As Rutger said, the gallery has a very special feel to it, it has something to do with the gallerists themselves, and also with the location on Lake Constance, right on the border between Germany, Austria and Switzerland, that generates a tolerant and open atmosphere, thriving with people and ideas. When Rutger and I had our first meeting there, it was in the middle of winter, the lake thickly covered with ice. Let me describe how Rutger created sounds from ice… He basically rocked the entire layer, beating the lake with a stick, as sounds crept up from under the ice about 20 feet from where we stood. Even though none of the video footage I took at the time made it into the final work, this was indeed the basis for the whole project, and witnessing Rutger making these field recordings really had an effect on how I came to perceive the lake, its surface and reflections in water in terms of sound. 

To answer your question, Steve, my relationship to music is a very recent one and has been influenced by the kind of stuff my husband listens to when he’s in his studio, painting, as well as by this old Bang & Olufsen hifi I inherited from my father (it’s such an ancient model that in the instruction manual, also kept conscientiously by my father, it explains what a CD is…). You rather took me by surprise with your talk of using ‘simple and disposable’ recording devices, because I believe from the listener’s point of view the opposite is true. I mean, you can’t experience this sort of music on the car stereo, can you? So, without the sound quality of my Bang & Olufsen I might never have got into the kind of music you create.

Unlike most people, I never had much to do with rock music as a teenager, which is a real handicap because even though nowadays I like listening to, say, Brian Eno and David Bowie, or, maybe, The Velvet Underground, Black Sabbath and Earth, it’s still difficult for me to see the chronology of things, how one developed out of the other, or why this particular piece of music was so revolutionary at the time... it’s just not imprinted on my brain. Nobody was more surprised than myself, therefore, when I came across a particular kind of electronic music and found out that this was really my kind of thing and that it seemed to immediately translate into images in my mind. When I listen to something I like, I always want to make a video… This music has so many parallels to visual art. It’s minimal like a monochrome painting, but in contrast to a lot of visual stuff produced today there’s content, too. I’m so unhappy with certain trends in the visual arts at the moment, and a lot of my inspiration comes from music. I’m talking about almost every aspect, from the creating and producing to the networking, i.e. distributing work, and also the visuals linked to it. I like music by William Basinski, Ben Frost, Deaf Center and, in case you hadn’t guessed this before, Machinefabriek. I particularly like the way Rutger suspends sound endlessly, and most of all, I like his music’s spatial qualities. One of the first things I listened to intensely was Loops for Voerman, which I since have seen him play live, and I’m hugely impressed the way it fills up space, this is precisely the kind of audio work I would like to encounter in a museum.

One of the tracks there was much excitement about when doing this collaboration was Rutger’s Floor & Radio track. You briefly mentioned it, Steve, at the end of your last comment. I’m really keen to discuss our respective experiences with this particular track between the three of us, and with this request will hand the text back to Steve…


Steve: Well, I’m not sure about listening on a car stereo (or earbuds for that matter!); but part of me — the one who started making music in a punk rock band in 1979 in Los Angeles — thinks that the notion of ‘needing’ hi-end gear to hear the work ‘properly’ could be a problem. I wonder if it might become somewhat elitist towards the audience — making work for only those who have specialized gear. On the other hand, yes, of course, when work has a certain level of delicacy, the ability to hear the details is important. For me, the question becomes where does one draw the line? And how does one think about such decisions? How does one negotiate the compromise? In terms of playback for installations, I have used tiny crappy speakers as well as hi-end audiophile gear. It tends to be a situational decision, based on location, voice, atmosphere, visual aesthetics, sound needs, etc.

In terms of making recordings, for me the sound quality is not the only thing determining my choice of tools. I also consider what kind of recording experience I am after. I have no technical training in recording or music. I’m a painter, I work with drawing, and I like to use my hands. I rarely pre-plan to record something specific, and in many ways cheap gear serves the experience I’m after much more than hi-end gear, simply because lo-fi gear generally needs almost no set-up time. This allows me to be much more ‘in the moment’, and if I make a recording with my cell phone or one without the use of headphones, I am much less detached from what is actually going on around me. Later, when I hear the recordings, I have no allegiance to what I heard in real time, less baggage and expectation, and more freedom to work with the sound. The recording process, for me, cannot be clinical, and is usually closer to taking photographs with a Polaroid or a disposable camera — or even more so, like jotting something down on a scrap of paper (which one might also call a recording). My process is never precious, and I rarely obsess over ‘capturing’ a specific sound, as much as simply recording a piece of a moment.

Certainly, there are situations where it is important to capture as much definition as possible, but there are also times when I feel the need to grab things almost absentmindedly — to have no expectations of what I want to capture, and, when listening to the results, to discover something I never expected to hear. There is a recording of wind chimes blowing in the Texas desert on one of my Lichtung tracks. I recorded it with my phone during a walk on an incredibly windy day. I remember standing there with my jacket blowing open and dust and leaves everywhere, and sounds rushing all over the place. I hadn’t brought my good recorder with me, but I wanted to hear what would happen if I tried to record in such weather. So I pulled out my phone, and because of the shape and location of its built in microphone, I captured something quite wonderful — not the actual sounds I heard, but something I would never have captured with a regular microphone.

Rutger’s track, the Floor & Radio piece, seems to reflect both approaches. The floor sound is very present and highly detailed, while the other sounds are a bit less ‘real’, more fragile and evocative. It is a wonderful combination of two different kinds of presence entwined. I like the sparseness and also the tactility of the sound, feeling much more like raking pebbles in a garden, than spreading butter with a knife. It inhabits, for me, a kind of space between the sculpture of Richard Tuttle and the sculpture of Cy Twombly. Tuttle’s work simply is what it is, nothing is hidden and/or coated; while Twombly’s sculpture always has a patina or a ‘skin’, its solid base usually coated, feeling liquid-like. In Twombly’s case the structure is ‘processed’, in Tuttle’s case the structure is completely revealed.

So Rutger, I wonder how you feel about this track? And perhaps how you see your sound in general relating to Sabine’s images. I find the fact that the three of us came together and simply started to work in such a compatible way is quite remarkable...


Rutger:   Steve, you indeed observed correctly. I really like to put contrast into my music. Not just with the track under discussion, but practically always. Such as combining a noisy, gritty texture with a delicate melody, placing calculated moments up against spontaneous randomness and using distant echos combined with close mic’d recordings. These frictions give the music a certain depth, so it becomes listenable on different levels. The listener has several layers of sound to dig through and all kinds of details to discover. It’s the same with the Floor & Radio track. The radio (far away) and the floor (close) create a virtual space. You’re in the middle of something, which, especially in our installation, helps to create an immersive experience. And that’s what I want to do: create music that’s a world on its own, to get lost in.

Working with Sabine for me wasn’t so much about consciously communicating. That might sound strange, but because we recorded our images and sounds together most of the time, there was a sense of ‘togetherness’. Inspired by the environment, we just started working and quickly noticed that our material complimented each other. Of course when working with the recorded audio, I didn’t always know what images would be combined with it, but Sabine always seemed to come up with something that fit really well, in terms of pace and atmosphere. We both used recordings of nature and zoomed in to a detail to make an intimate and almost abstract work. Also, in the working process I always restricted myself to one or two sound sources per track. The same kind of minimalism is also found in Sabine’s videos. So as you say ‘simply start to work’, that’s indeed what we did… and it worked. It’s the same as when I improvise with another musician. The best times are those when there’s not much talking, just playing, listening, reacting. And sometimes, as in this project, magic happens.


Sabine: That’s nice how you describe the Floor & Radio track, the distant radio and the nearby floor creating a virtual space. This is also what our installation as a whole entity is essentially — a virtual space, centered round our temporary ‘home’ of the Mindelsee lake, with other bits originating from far-flung locations, a desert in Texas, possibly Japan, my hometown in Germany, I don’t really want to specify all the places where the different source materials may have come from, but I think the key to the work is that it’s made up of differing fragments, a virtual existence in its nature which is temporally suspended in real space.

I found this process of recording alongside and subsequently working in response to each other — you sending me a sound fragment, then me making a visual fragment to go with it, then you emailing me some more sound, and so on — very interesting because it made me understand your working process much better, how you utilized the material you had recorded, how you took up certain elements again, dropped others, mixed them with something else, and with every new fragment it seemed that my understanding of this sound grew deeper. Then, your Floor & Radio track arrived, and it totally took me by surprise. It seemed to test the boundaries of our project as well as my perception of music in general. I can’t quite put into words what precisely I find so unusual here, but this track is definitely a piece of music I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I found it the most challenging track to create the visuals for. Also, with the particular field recordings it utilizes, it seems to conceptually occupy a key role within our joint work in that within itself it literally connects the outside and the inside, and more specifically returns the former to the gallery space.

My other absolute favorite is your Bells & Bowls track, Steve. When listening to and viewing this fragment of our installation I’m particularly pleased with the way the audio and the visuals communicate with each other. To me this is a particularly successful demonstration of how nature and the digital present in both audio and video interact. One of my first encounters with your music is closely linked to Galerie Vayhinger. When Rutger and I met at the gallery and introduced your work to Werner and Helena, we were listening to your Winter Cuplet with a few people, the space was flooded with light, and we celebrated the occasion accordingly with a little tea ceremony (and cakes) whilst experimenting with placing the speakers in various locations in the space or moving around in the room ourselves. Just when the piece was about to end, the church bells from outside joined in. I remember Lejla saying that these sounds reminiscent of bells were in no way ‘sweet’, but rather ‘sharp’, very precise, very focused, which was something like a first reaction but in my opinion also something located very deeply at the core of your work. It links up with what you described earlier in making sure that you stay in the ‘here and now’, and I think in your work you have achieved this rather wonderfully.


Steve: Well, I think the connective tissue between us is so clearly illustrated in your experience of listening to my CD of teacups and allowing the church bells to become part of that listening experience. Perhaps the leaves we will place on the floor have come out of that experience. I think all three of us share an openness, where we have composed fragments that are not closed or exclusive of anything else occurring within their ‘space’. Certainly on some level my sound and Rutger’s sound don’t need visuals, and similarly Sabine’s visuals don’t need sound — but all of these things we have made we have placed together so that they are continually conversing with one another. This only really works because we’ve left room in our own parts for each other.

Duchamp spoke about a work of art never being completed until it is experienced by an audience, but perhaps in a collaboration, an artwork is never truly completed unless every participant has a voice — and perhaps it is not only that each one of us has a clear and audible (or visible) voice, but also at times the presence of distant bells...


(This conversation took place via email over the course of several weeks in October 2010).

© Sabine Bürger 2015